By Sean Barron
He may have lacked the star power of some presidents and the allure of others, but when it came to President Warren G. Harding, what you saw was what you got, a researcher and collector says.
“He was a man of his word. That says a lot to me,” said John McDonald, who has amassed a collection of Harding memorabilia and conducted research on the country’s 29th president. “He went in and made campaign promises, which most [politicians] don’t keep, but he kept his.”
During the past six years, the Trumbull County man has kept many of the former president’s belongings, including a Masonic ring given to Harding three days before his March 4, 1921, inauguration. That item jump- started his research into the one-term president.
Numerous items that make up McDonald’s collection were on display Saturday at the Canfield Historical Society Bond House, 44 W. Main St.
McDonald, a carpenter by trade who plans to publish a book of his findings, noted that while being sworn in as president, Harding wore the ring on his left hand and placed his right hand on President George Washington’s Bible. He kept the ring on until he died Aug. 2, 1923, at age 57 in a San Francisco hotel after having served only two years of his term, McDonald explained, adding that famous people such as Thomas A. Edison and Henry Ford were among those who campaigned for Harding.
McDonald’s collection included a copy of the Chicago Tribune that carried the news of Harding’s sudden and unexplained death; a campaign poster promoting the Harding-Coolidge ticket; and newspaper snapshots showing, for example, the president signing the Farm Bill and pitching horseshoes.
In addition, a woman recently gave McDonald two nails and a penny someone had deliberately placed on a set of railroad tracks in 1923 in Youngstown. The items were flattened after a train that was part of Harding’s funeral procession ran over them, said McDonald, who speculated that whoever placed them there may have wanted a souvenir.
His collection also includes display cases of several posters, numerous campaign buttons and a 1920 photograph of Harding holding an infant while in Kansas on a cross- country trip.
During his short presidency, Harding faced certain challenges not unlike those of today, noted Laura Zeh, a part-time curator.
“He had his own fiscal cliff to deal with, [but] he chose not to bail out the banks and businesses,” said Zeh, of East Liverpool, referring to a short depression that gripped the country in 1920.
The strategy apparently worked. Under Harding, federal spending was reduced from $6.3 billion in 1920 to $3.2 billion in 1922; during the same time, federal taxes were cut from $6.6 billion to $4 billion. By 1922, unemployment had fallen by nearly 50 percent, according to Jerry Kohn, policy analyst with the Illinois Taxpayer Education Foundation.
“He believed government should be run like a successful business and that government should stay out of business,” Zeh added.